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Arts of the Sahara and Amazigh

Amazigh (=Berber) culture is at present officially recognized as an important component of Moroccan identity.
Public schools have the task to teach the amazigh language and at some Moroccan Universities student’s research on amazigh culture in its different expressions: music, dance, visual arts
The Museum Tiskiwin, being part of the University Cadi Ayyad in Marrakech, has joined this effort to make Amazigh Culture better known.
In its permanent exhibition, the Museum shows that the material culture of the amazigh speaking people is always in close relationship with the natural environment they live in and with their traditional way of life, either sedentary dedicated to agriculture or nomadic dedicated to cattle breeding.
It is probably this rural and utilitarian character that has prevented the cultural and artistic value of Amazigh Culture to be recognized on behalf of the urban elite not only in North Africa itself but until very recently throughout the world.

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click on picture to enlarge

To Historians with urban background, it looked like Civilization had come to Morocco from abroad and especially from the Mediterranean and Near Eastern side.
In spite of the fact that pre historians and archeologists have much changed this view, in most Western Museums and Universities, North Africa including Morocco is still presented and studied in the Department of Near Eastern studies or in the Department of Islamic Art…

Islamic Art is the name given by Western Art Historians to a style or form of art that had been growing up in the Near East out of two different local traditions (Byzantine and Persian) before the advent of Islam. It gained new vitality and was further developed when it was used to build the first Mosques in the Capitals of the Islamic World.
With Islam, this art tradition spread to Asia and Africa, mainly along the trading routes and in an urban environment, where abstract thinking prevails over local needs and means

As the Koran gives no rules for how to build or decorate a mosque, the Berbers in rural areas of North Africa would build their mosques in the same style and with the same materials as the houses in their villages.
Significantly, in the chapter on Islamic Art, History of Art Manuals don’t mention Berber Mosques and their painted ceilings, because they don’t fit in with the idea of Islamic Art with its urban connection

Berber Art isn’t recognized either as African, because more even than “Islamic Art”, “African Art” is a conventional name for a certain type of African Art tradition.
A huge continent as Africa is has of course many different art traditions.
One of the oldest is certainly “the Saharan Tradition” that took form in prehistorical times, when it reached already a peak of artistic perfection in the rock paintings at Tassili n’Ajjer. The most striking feature of the Saharan tradition is the prominent role of women in society and the high esteem for feminine values
In spite of having come under the influence of the patriarchal tradition of Islam and Christianity, the underlying matriarchal character of the Saharan tradition can still be felt. It was visualized in the 11th century in a symbolic and very dramatic way in a sculpture of a male figure with strongly emphasized physical female attributes. A well known Art Historian thinks that the sculpture could represent the Emperor of Ghana in his symbolic role of King Mother; the kingdom of Ghana was situated in the south of present Mauritania and is still memorized by poets throughout West Africa
The Saharan tradition spread to the Sahel and to North Africa, where it lives on in very distinct natural and cultural environments. It had to respond to local needs and means, what explains the great differences between the material cultures of the peoples that belong to the Saharan Diaspora
The steadily ongoing migration to Morocco of former Saharan Berber tribes has maintained the African connection of Moroccan rural, mainly Amazigh, culture against all odds.
When Central Government comes under control of the urban elite, urban ways of behavior become a model, most often an empty model that corresponds neither to any need nor to means available. In recent times urbanization has again strengthened in Morocco the Islamic art traditions and Western influences.
Global, abstract thinking is establishing the reign of uniformity with, however, at the same time a growing need for identity and recognition of the importance of diversity. Berber culture has still the vitality to satisfy these needs.